Op/Ed

Editorial: Ahead of town meeting, should we plan for growth, or continued decline?

ANGELO LYNN

As town selectboards and area district school boards put together the final pieces of the upcoming fiscal year budgets to be voted on during Town Meeting 2023, it’s more important than ever to start focusing on ways to stimulate population growth throughout Addison County.

Why? Let’s start with two reasons: 

• First, because school aid is based on a per pupil count, when school facilities operate significantly below optimum capacity it’s less cost-efficient. State aid drops, teacher-pupil ratios drop, course selection is reduced, yet costs remain high. It’s a downward spiral. And what we’re seeing in Vermont, today, is more and more state aid for education flowing to Chittenden County and other urban centers, while rural counties see less. As policy it makes sense, but it puts Addison County on the losing end of that equation.

• Second, because retail activity in smaller towns has declined dramatically in the past few decades (largely due to online shopping), towns need a larger population to create an “appropriate” level of economic and social vitality. We say “appropriate” because economic and social vitality is a relative idea, but if Middlebury residents, for instance, want to revive the community vitality of its downtown of 30-40 years ago (when there were family department stores, a downtown hardware, a men’s clothing store, two women’s stores, jewelry stores, a hobby shop, two or three active bar/restaurants, and more) a larger and more active population is needed. Those same types of services may never be replicated, but other activities to generate a similar vitality will.

To that end, Middlebury, for instance, might want to envision a development plan to reach a population of 12,000 by 2030. 

Admittedly, that would be a staggering amount of growth for rural Vermont, but it’s not out of line for what rural states like Montana, Colorado, parts of Idaho and Wyoming, Oregon and Washington have experienced over the past 20 years, as well as several states in the Southeast — and many of those states are increasingly threatened by climate change in ways that Vermont is not likely to see (drought and fires in the Rockies and West, and hurricanes and flooding in the Southeast.)

Ironically, it’s difficult for community leaders in Addison County to believe growth is likely, or even conceivable. Rural Vermont has seen decades of stagnation or decline, so even though Vermont has much to offer newcomers it’s hard to bet on a promise.

What’s also true, however, is that we doom our communities to continued decline if we don’t build in the prospect of growth. That is, if you want to grow, you must lay the foundation to make that happen.

Currently, it’s no secret that our number one problem is lack of housing — affordable or otherwise. We just don’t’ have enough. We have open jobs that are begging to be filled, but no one to take them.

To that end, state, regional and town planners should be working smartly to reduce uncertainties for builders (streamline regulations and reduce delays), create more affordable scenarios for property owners (such as allowing denser housing), and re-examining state code requirements to be sure everything we have is necessary and not excessive. That applies not just to residential housing, but also commercial construction as well as public institutions, like schools. (A quick check of how much it will cost Addison Central Supervisory Union schools just to come up “to code” on its various buildings is truly shocking; see story on Page 1A in today’s Addison Independent. Perhaps collective pushback from the school community on the ratcheting up of standards is warranted?)

A second problem that limits growth, and furthers the decline in student population, is the exorbitant cost of childcare and a shortage of available spots. At $15,000-plus annually per child, it’s no wonder families are smaller and school population has dropped. 

Two scenarios could help: first, the Legislature needs to revisit the stricter regulations on daycare facilities passed in 2014 to study how that has impacted cost and to what benefit; and school districts should be encouraged to convert vacant classrooms into daycare facilities that offer instruction for a full school day. 

No doubt there are many caveats to the second suggestion (currently Vermont’s universal childcare law allows for 10 hours per week of free pre-K instruction for kids 3 to kindergarten), but the longer hours in an existing school facility is a commonsense solution that serves a community need. (The school district serving Woodstock and area communities (Windsor Central Supervisory Union) currently offers free schooling for kids starting at age 3 for district residents for a full school day — a major draw for families in those communities. Just imagine how many Chittenden County families might move to Addison County (provided we had adequate housing) if Addison County school districts offered a similar service.

Yes, taxes would go up to meet those extra childcare services for two years prior to Kindergarten, but all three Addison County school districts should have adequate existing classroom space, and once a family resettled in a district, it’s likely they would stay and create a lasting source of state aid for each student K-12.

What’s discouraging is that while all three Addison County school districts have been planning for consolidation and closing schools, none have sought ways to expand services to attract more students and families.

Just as in business, you won’t grow if you plan for decline.

Angelo Lynn

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